Some academics give less literary merit to science fiction. However, a text’s intrinsic literary qualities can upend typical genre expectations.
Many of us grew up reading genre fiction—a collection of genres including science fiction, fantasy, and mystery that many academics, and the general public, might consider lowbrow. But is this judgment fair? Of course, every literary genre has some lower-quality works slipping into the mix. But we can’t let a few bad apples taint our experience of the entire genre. We need to ask ourselves: Do we implicitly judge a work’s literary merit based on its genre? And do outside opinions of a work’s literary merit affect our own perceptions?
Chris Gavaler and Dan Johnson (2019) conducted a study titled “The Literary Genre Effect: A One-Word Science Fiction (vs. Realism) Manipulation Reveals Intrinsic Text Properties Outweigh Extrinsic Expectations of Literary Quality” to test how readers rated the literary merit of genre fiction based on “both intrinsic text properties and extrinsic reader expectations” (Gavaler and Johnson 2019, 34).
The researchers prepared a test story, “Ada,” with two variants: one in the narrative-realism genre and one in the science fiction genre. The two stories were identical, save for one word. In the narrative-realism variant, the narrator introduces the character Ada as “my daughter”; in the science fiction variant, he introduces her as “my robot” (Gavaler and Johnson 2019, 38). The two words acted as genre markers of either narrative-realism (i.e., “daughter”) or science fiction (i.e., “robot”).
Prior to reading their assigned story, participants were presented with one of two scenarios: that the story had been given either low or high literary merit by reputable sources. Together, four experimental groups were formed: daughter story/low merit, daughter story/high merit, robot story/low merit, and robot story/high merit.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of the four groups, and they were given questionnaires to complete once they finished the story. The researchers received 189 valid responses. After analyzing the results, they found that including the “robot” marker word did not reduce the participants’ evaluations of literary merit. In both cases, the robot and daughter stories performed comparably. Participants in groups presented with the high external literary merit scenario rated their stories significantly higher, regardless of whether the robot or daughter story was read after the scenario.
The researchers concluded that “the results demonstrate a ‘literary genre effect,’ where despite an obvious genre cue (i.e., robot), readers perceived equal amounts literary merit for science fiction and narrative realism versions of the story,” even when different extrinsic expectations of literary quality were taken into consideration (Gavaler and Johnson 2019, 49).
This research indicates that we shouldn’t judge the literary merit of a work on its genre alone. Inasmuch as the genre marker words accurately represent the two genres, the presentation of high or low external literary merit affected participants’ evaluations of literary merit more than genre did.
Based on this conclusion, in the publishing industry, we can work to become aware of external factors that might be influencing our perceptions of a particular work’s literary quality. When we recognize our own biases surrounding genre fiction, we can learn to set them aside and judge a work based on its literary merit alone.
To learn more about the literary quality of genre fiction, read the full article:
Gavaler, Chris, and Dan Johnson. 2019. “The Literary Genre Effect: A One-Word Science Fiction (vs. Realism) Manipulation Reveals Intrinsic Text Properties Outweigh Extrinsic Expectations of Literary Quality.” Scientific Study of Literature 9, no. 1: 34–52. https://doi.org/10.1075/ssol.19010.joh.
—Reagan Weston, Editing Research
FEATURE IMAGE BY TARA WINSTEAD
Find more research
Take a look at Chris Gavaler and Dan Johnson’s (2017) study preceding the one highlighted in this article to learn more about the perceptions of literary merit in genre fiction: “The Genre Effect: A Science Fiction (vs. Realism) Manipulation Decreases Inference Effort, Reading Comprehension, and Perceptions of Literary Merit.” Scientific Study of Literature 7, no. 1: 79–108. https://doi.org/10.1075/ssol.7.1.04gav.
Check out Hannah Charlesworth’s Editing Research article “How to Use Episode Structures to Make Readers Think” for more information about ways to make a story more literary.